• Timothy Grieve-Carlson

Rethinking Skepticism, Pt. 1

TGC: With all of us in varying states of isolation during this difficult and uncertain time, we wanted to try something a bit more communal in this post.

We would like to start a conversation amongst ourselves here, but eventually, I hope, with you, the person reading this now. I am going to pose a very simple question to my Paracultures friends, readers, and colleagues:

What is skepticism?

This is not a trick question, but it is an invitation to think more deeply and carefully about skepticism than we typically do. Is skepticism just a critical posture towards a subject? How is skepticism valuable, or not? Can skepticism amount to a worldview?

Sam Stoeltje and Christine Skolnik are going to respond to my question below, and I hope that you all will, too, in the comments. As the conversation continues, we will offer subsequent posts where we highlight reader responses and offer guest posts to interested readers, in an effort to make this space something we can all share in a time of isolation and distance.

SS: As someone with a lot more time on their hands than expected, I am excited to use this forum for some socially distant conversation on a Paracultural topic! Namely, what Tim has put on the board, his insightful and deceptively complex question, “What is skepticism?”

A conventional kind of skepticism would pose a critique to what we are trying to do here: Why are we wasting our time giving attention to all these supposed things and happenings that, it would at least seem, the dominant producers of knowledge all agree do not exist? Bundled into these questions are yet more questions that get trickier and trickier: Who are these producers of knowledge? What are their methods? Do these methods do what they claim to do? Conversely, what is the status (political, ethical) of knowledge produced outside of dominant institutions? How is/are knowledge(s) valued? (Woof!)

Feel free to respond or spin off of any of that. Rather than continue further in that direction, I thought I’d offer another, more parallax response, in the form of an anecdote and a citation, which I think will in all likelihood make this inquiry even messier.

I attended a reading recently given by the vitally important Anishinaabe writer Louise Erdrich. It was just before the Coronavirus really started hitting the fan, and there were lots of nervous jokes throughout the evening about it; also lots and LOTS of what I assume was mostly psychosomatic coughing from the audience. (Sidenote: Erdrich runs a bookstore, Birch Bark Books, in Minneapolis, that takes online orders and could probably use some online commerce right now. Now more than ever: support independent bookstores!)

Erdrich read from her new novel, The Night Watchman, which I bought a copy of and have only just started. But I knew I had to pick up a copy when, in the Q&A, she gave away that it features both a GHOST and a PSYCHIC DOG. In case anyone was wondering, this is how you get me to buy a book. The Q&A was led by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a Houston writer, and there was one really interesting moment when things got paracultural, so to speak. Divakaruni wanted Erdrich to talk about the elements of the “supernatural” in her book, and I think, in her question, introduced the generic term “magical realism.”

I wish I had Erdrich’s exact response. First, she reflected that she thought of these elements in her books as less a case of “magical realism” than of “practical realism.” Asked what she meant, she said, “here, I’ll show you.” She turned to the crowd and asked how many of us had either seen, or knew someone who had seen, a ghost. Immediately I raised my hand; I’ve never seen a ghost, but my Dad, who as a Coast Guard brat spent part of his childhood on Governor’s Island off the southern coast of Manhattan, has multiple stories of ghosts haunting the old Army fort there. I was part of the maybe twenty percent of the audience who raised their hands. Of course, if people would have been honest, I think it would have been well over fifty percent - lots of people see ghosts, and lots of people know lots of people.

It was enough hands, however, for Erdrich. This was why she considered ghosts (and, I guess, psychic dogs) to fall within the compass of “practical realism.” She didn’t elaborate in a technical way, but left it up to us to figure out what she meant. My understanding was that regardless of how “magical” paranormal things are understood to be, there is a very practical sense in which people have experiences, they see things, they share their stories with other people. This is phenomenology. (I love that “phenomenology” has the word “phenomenon” in it, and that “phenomenon” has this second, spectral or paracultural valence to it; ditto “metaphysics.”)

To try to connect it back: We typically expect skepticism to mean a certain attitude toward the improbable or impossible, and we assume that attitude to be “practical.” But how practical is it, really?

Oh, and also: she polled the audience about how many of us had encountered psychic dogs. Even more hands went up!

CS: I imagine a part of our agenda to be reclaiming skepticism for academics and members of the general public who are open to paranormal phenomena but are also critical thinkers. In an earlier off-line conversation, I mentioned my concern about discrepancies and logical fallacies in paranormal narratives reported in academic texts. They bothered me; I thought they undermined the credibility of the academic enterprise. Upon reflection, however, I remembered minor discrepancies in my own paranormal narratives (honest slippages, as if I were playing “telephone” with myself). Does this mean I’m not credible or that human memory is generally unreliable? Or does it mean that absolute accuracy isn’t a reasonable standard of credibility and validity?

In theoretical/ethical terms, I’m reminded of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself and her arguments that demanding coherent narratives from other people is a kind of transgression if not violence. [1] I’m also reminded of Henri Bergson’s various assertions that “life” can't be measured. The assumption that anyone’s experience can be subject to scientific scrutiny should also be subject to scrutiny, particularly the requirement that paranormal experiences meet the demands of (answer to) the agendas of “normal science.” By this I don’t mean science in general, but the scientific status quo. An unrecognized paradox of popular skepticism is the expectation that novel, “out of the box,” evidence fit into boxes constructed of previous evidence, or be excluded. How is that a model of scientific inquiry?

Circling back to Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler describes autobiographical narratives as performances, focusing on problems of accountability. We are required to give coherent accounts of ourselves, in various contexts, but to what extent can we really understand and fully articulate any of our experiences and motives? If our identities are formed through narrative co-construction, in various developmental contexts, and we learn language by imitating others, our identities and our language are never truly our own. Thus our experiences are categorically constrained by social expectations.

Butler also questions the ethics of requiring individuals to give a “full account” of themselves and the general ethos of “hyper-mastery.” As institutions regularly require that we account for our actions, we develop various habitual modes of appearing to be thoroughly self-aware and self-possessed. But this stage play of comprehensive self-awareness and self-control may, paradoxically, be irresponsible. It doesn't actually represent our experience or contexts of communication.

I love this quote:

An ability to affirm what is contingent and incoherent in oneself may allow one to affirm others who may or may not “mirror” one’s own constitution. There is, after all, always the tacit operation of the mirror in Hegel’s concept of reciprocal recognition, since I must somehow see that the other is like me, and see that the other is making the same recognition of our likeness. There is lots of light in the Hegelian room, and the mirrors have the happy coincidence of usually being windows, as well. This view of recognition does not encounter an exteriority that resists a bad infinity of recursive mimesis. There is no opacity that shadows these windows or dims that light. In consequence, we might consider a certain post-Hegelian reading of the scene of recognition in which precisely my own opacity to myself occasions my capacity to confer a certain kind of recognition on others (41).

Here reciprocal recognition and ethical sensibility are based not on the idea of seeing oneself in the other as a mirror, but on realizing our own opacity to ourselves. Although we can’t recognize ourselves, we can recognize that others don't really know and can't account for themselves either.

Coming back around to skepticism, Butler’s “opacity to myself” implies a gentle skepticism toward “myself” as well as others. It’s also, importantly, a skepticism of skepticism, and a suspension of judgement as we know it. There’s no rational, Modern, ground in this scene--no foundational or higher ground. This, obviously, poses a challenge to academia, and its scientific fetishes. Alternately, as Tim mentioned in an earlier off-line discussion, we might begin to read everything critically and aesthetically, as texts. [2]

1. Butler, Judith P. Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham Univ Press, 2009.

2. This brings to mind Tim Morton’s Realist Magic, one of the least appreciated books of Morton’s corpus. See "Adventures in Realist Magic " here.

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